On not finishing books and dentists!

You’d think that by my nearly mid-fifties I’d have grown out of not finishing books, wouldn’t you?  Life’s too short, the TBR’s too big and all that. Yet generally I desperately still want to finish reading any book I start.  There’s no ‘owing it to the author to give their book a fair read’ duty to this, I’m coming to the feeling that it’s mostly ‘hope’ that keeps me going, an optimistic outlook that hopes that a book that I’m stuck in, or not enjoying turns around by the end. Combine that the the sense of personal challenge, and that generally keeps me reading. It’s rare for me to give up on a book, but I did on the following one:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

ferris

I really enjoyed Ferris’s first novel Then we came to the end about office politics, downsizing and corporate management gobbledegook – I recognised elements of the latter in particular from the multinational I used to work for. I read it pre-blog and in my spreadsheet my capsule review says the following:

“On a normal workday you spend more time with your colleagues than your family and are forced into relationships with people you probably don’t like. Add a failing business where people are getting laid off one by one, and everyone else is scared witless that it’ll be them next – this makes for some strained behaviour which is exploited to the full in this novel.
By turns comic and sad, but always with tongue stuck firmly in cheek, my only complaint was it was too long; it was a bit flabby in parts and 300 pages would have been a better length. There were just some of the team I just couldn’t care less about that I got bored with, and others like Joe the supervisor who we never really got to know at all – but that was probably deliberate! I did love the bit with the Office Co-ordinator checking serial numbers on chairs (believe me that really happens!).”

Anyway I was looking forward to reading his new one which is about a dentist – especially as I’ve just had £1000 worth of root canal and crown work done!

It started well. The main character, dentist Paul O’Rourke, narrates the whole book as a monologue and the following paragraph is from the second page:

A dentist is only half the doctor he claims to be. THat he’s also half mortician is the secret he keeps to himself. The ailing bits he tried to turn healthy again. The dead bits he just tried to make presentable. He bores a hole, clears the rot, fills the pit, and seals the hatch. He yanks the teeth, pours the mold, fits the fakes, and paints to match. Open cavities are the eye stones of skulls, and molars stand erect as tombstones.

Soon after though Paul starts rambling, and essentially he rambles his way through the whole book. About golf, the Red Sox, his love-life or lack of, and especially religion and the meaning of life.  For an atheist, he seems to want something to believe in – and when a departing client commits identity theft and starts posting religious comments, from the devout to the weird to the nasty in his name – the rest of the book gets obsessed by him wallowing in it.  I lasted until about page 75, and then very quickly skimmed my way through the rest.  I’m glad I didn’t bother.  The main character is so tedious.

If the book has one saving grace – it’s Betsy Conrad – Paul’s super-efficient dental hygienist. She’s sixty, a widow, a devout Catholic and all round good egg whose role is to constantly question Paul and keep him running on the right track.

I’d come out of the bathroom and she’d be standing right there, “I’ve been looking all over for you,” she’d say. “Where have you been?” I’d tell her the obvious, she’d say, “Why must you call it the Thunderbox?” I’d tell her, adding a few details , and she’d grow severe, she’d say, ‘”Please do not refer to what you do in the bathroom as ‘making the pope’s fountain.’ I know the pope is just a joke to you. I know the Catholic Church is nothing but a whetting stone for your wit. But I happen to hold the church in the highest regard, and though you can’t understand that, if you had any respect for me you would mind what you say about the pope.”

There are some really funny moments, and some passages that are brilliantly written particularly about work (again), but they get lost amongst all the psycho-babble about the meaning of life and finding yourself, and Paul being so self-centred. Ferris can write though, and I’ll certainly read more of him hoping that his best is yet to come.

P.S. I did like the epilogue though… (DNF)

For another take on this novel, see Rachel’s review at Book Snob

* * * * *
Source: Publisher – Thank you!
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, pub Penguin Viking, May 2014, Hardback 352 pages.

Advertisements

Authors & Book Groups – an event with Kate Clanchy and Louise Millar

On a balmy evening, we were out in the courtyard at Mostly Books for a precursor evening to Independent Booksellers Week (28th June to 5th July – find out more here). Mark and Nikki had managed to get not one but two lovely authors, Kate Clanchy and Louise Millar, to discuss the topic “What makes a good book group book?” with the gathered audience.P1020122 (3)

First let me introduce you to the authors: Kate on the left is an award-winning poet and writes for radio, her memoir Antigona and Me (which I reviewed here back in the early days of this blog) is the true story of Kate’s cleaner when she lived in London – a Korsovan refugee, and truly is a good book for discussion. Recently Kate wrote the Costa-nominated Meeting the English – which is a gloriously funny Hampstead comedy about a young Scotsman who comes down to London for a job, (I’ll be reviewing it shortly for Shiny New Books).

On the right, Louise, by contrast, comes from the world of journalism via Smash Hits and Marie-Claire. She writes psychological thrillers and her latest is The Hidden Girl about a couple that move to the country to create the perfect life into which to bring a child. Her previous novels The Playdate and Accidents Happen have been big hits. (I’m nearly 100 pages into Accidents Happen, which is set in Oxford, at the moment and it’s getting really interesting and not a little scary.)

The evening started off by bookshop owner Mark chatting with Kate and Louise about their bookgroup experiences.  Both have been to bookgroups as visiting authors, but are not members of one. Interestingly, Kate said that she found that as an author, when she’d tried to be a member her opinions tended to be taken too seriously and that inhibited the other members, so although she has friends in lovely groups, she won’t now join them.

Both authors said that when they visit book groups, it’s the diplomatic thing to either not join the group at the start, or to withdraw before the end of the meeting – so those who didn’t like the book but have been too polite to say so can get their chance! Louise was surprised at the way people tend to talk about her novels at book groups – it’s not the suspense that generates the discussion, but the underlying family issues.

Kate and Louise then read from their latest books, and the authors answered questions about their writing styles and writing day before returning to the big question of the evening – and the discussion became a free for all.  When actually asked the question what makes a good book group book, no-one in the courtyard could say with any certainty that it is possible to predict, however, everyone agreed that a book that generates more than a ‘s’alright’ opinion is needed. Publicists offering ‘good book group books’ were viewed with a little suspicion – their job is ultimately to generate sales. The audience was divided over the value of book group reading guides at the back of books, a few felt they’re patronising, others like them.

Nearly everyone in the audience, bar the authors themselves, were members of a book group, and there was just one male other than the shop staff present. This inevitably led to some discussion over how men and women read differently, and whether men tend perhaps to be a little more reticent about discussing the books they read in book groups. There was a huge variety in how book groups in the audience run themselves and choose their books too. Some are quite formal – choosing from a short-list suggested by the shop and/or meet in the shop for serious discussion; some take it in turns to host and maybe the host chooses the next book; others like mine are quite informal and meet in the pub, (as we‘re too lazy to host at home like the neutral setting and beer).

Both authors were absolutely lovely to talk to, and really easy to engage with. It was a very pleasant evening indeed.

* * * * *
To explore works by these authors on Amazon UK, please click below:
Meeting the English, Antigona and Me, Newborn (Picador Poetry) – by Kate Clanchy – all paperbacks.
The Hidden Girl(hardback), Accidents Happen, The Playdate (paperbacks) by Louise Millar.

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter…

Simon T of Stuck in a Book has started off a new meme… he will assign those wanting to take part a random letter, and you then choose your favourite things beginning with that letter in these categories:

                • Favourite Book
                • Favourite Author
                • Favourite Song
                • Favourite Film
                • Favourite object.

… and I got a

D

So here we go – it’s harder than it seems … (all links refer back to my original reviews)

Favourite Book:

After perusing my indexes, I had four on the shortlist – three of them were Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon, Double Indemnity by James M Cain and The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner, but the fourth and my ultimate choice is:
donovan's brain
Donovan’s Brian by Curt Siodmak

A Science fiction classic from 1942. See my review here. A teenage favourite, it was even better on re-reading a few years ago.

 

Favourite Author: 

Jill Dawson

I’ve read three of her novels and they’ve not disappointed. I reviewed her latest one, The Tell-Tale Heart for Shiny New Books here, and her previous novel Lucky Bunny here.

The Tell Tale Heart - UK hardback cover

Favourite Song:

 

Dance the Night Away by The Mavericks

A happy song that you can actually dance to. This was the easiest category for me.


Favourite Film:

This one’s more difficult but sticking with films I have actually seen and being a 007 fan I’ll pick…

Diamonds are ForeverDiamonds Are Forever

It was the first Bond film I saw in the cinema as a kid, with my grandma and grandpa one holiday.

And finally, a Favourite Object:

Such a broad topic – but I went with something that makes me smile …

8873350-daisies-background

If you’d like to have a go, pop over to Simon’s post (link back at the top) and wait for your letter.

Updates – an apology

Sorry – posts have been a little scarce this last week haven’t they?

The end of term is a busy time, and I have my school magazine editor’s hat on for our bumper summer issue, and also gearing up towards Issue 2 of Shiny New Books which will come out in a couple of weeks.

I have managed to squeeze in reading our book group choice for this month inbetween the review copies – and I can say that Half Bad by Sally Green was a totally good read, not ‘arf! I hope to manage a full review very soon.

Today, I’m holding a Yard Sale at my house – with boxes and boxes of books on offer, plus lots of other stuff. If you’re near Abingdon and want to pop by, you’re very welcome – I’ll drop you directions if you ask.
book-sale-table

The Savages are back …

American Savage by Matt Whyman

savagesLast summer I had the pleasure of reading one of the funniest YA novels I’ve yet encountered in Matt Whyman’s The Savages – don’t you just love that cover?  Although it was written as a standalone novel, so many people wondered what happened to the family in it, that Matt has now written a sequel – American Savage.

At this point, if you haven’t read the first one – you should click here to see what I’m talking about, and read no further below for now…

* * * * *

AMERICAN_SAVAGE (2) The first novel started briefly at the end – with an exquisitely cooked feast from which the Savage family had to flee before flashing back to tell their story.

The sequel sees them safely escaped to America where they’ve settled into the quiet seaside town of Jupiter, Florida.  Titus is a property manager and has gone a little paunchy and Angelica is a fitness freak with an adoring Argentinian personal trainer. Ivan is being bullied at school by the jocks on the football team, big sister Sasha is now at university and doesn’t make an appearance this time, baby Katya is now a Disney princess at primary school. Titus’s centenarian father Oleg lives in a nearby old people’s home where he’s found love again at 103.  Lastly there is lodger Amanda, a vegan who recognises that the Savages’ predilection for a particular kind of meat represents the ultimate in local sourcing and makes this exception.  As before it starts with a feast, and Titus is regarding his table:

Right now, Angelica looked quietly satisfied that she had delivered another unforgettable spread. Titus lifted the spoon to his mouth. Sensing his shirt pull tight across his belly as he did so, the slightest hint of self-loathing soured the mouthful. There was no denying that he had put on a few pounds lately. Ever since the family had moved here, in fact, he found himself climbing onto the scales with a heavy heart, but what could he do about it? He had always taken pride in locally sourcing food for their feasts, and it was inevitable that the meat from these parts would carry a little extra fat. There also tended to be a lot more of it on the bone, and the Savages never left anything to waste.

If you’ve stayed with me, I assume you have twigged what’s different about the Savages. However abhorrent it may be, like Tony and his family in The Sopranos, there’s something strangely lovable about them. They don’t whack people to eat unnecessarily – they are chosen carefully, people who won’t be missed (a bit Dexter-ish don’t you think), then lovingly prepared and consumed at a feast. They eat normally the rest of the time, except for Amanda.

The trouble starts again when Amanda gets a job as a waitress at a sports bar, and refusing to dance for the patrons manages to get it closed down. Unfortunately the bar was owned by the Russian gangster and used for money laundering. The gangster is rumoured to be a cannibal, who ripped off a guy’s ear in prison and ate it raw. He makes threats to Titus and his family – they need a plan. The answer is to reopen as a vegan restaurant – something totally new in Jupiter, Florida, the land of rib-joints.  The only problem is that they make a success of it, and the Russian gets interested again… Set against the main story is Ivan’s battle with his tormentors. Ivan is at a tricky stage of adolescence and needs, in his mind, a way of getting even – how would a Savage do it?

Necessarily, in reading this book, we are in on the secret, and it loses its initial shock value.  However, Whyman again has huge fun with his characters.  The shock of Titus harvesting a victim gets replaced with a different kind of shock when he realises he’s no longer fit enough to do it in that way – the tables are turned, and more resourcefulness is needed.  Through this and other sequences, Whyman is able to have a discussion about food and healthier lifestyles – even eating less, but better quality meat – ha, ha!  By being quite matter of fact about the cannibalism, the book stays on the right side of goriness. There is plenty to laugh about, but the feasts are always treated with reverence.

This family is too much fun to leave to live happily ever after. I’d love to see them in Hollywood or the frozen north of Canada for another adventure or two, and also to read about how Titus met Angelica.  Please…

Why should teenagers have all the fun in reading about the Savages?  In the tradition of The Radleys by Matt Haig (see my review here), both of these novels ought to be crossover hits with adult readers too. I loved this sequel even more than the Savages’ first outing. (9.5/10)

* * * * *
American Savage (Savages 2) by Matt Whyman. Published by Hot Key Books, June 2014. Paperback, 288 pages.
The Savages by Matt Whyman
The Radleys by Matt Haig

 

An evening with Nick Harkaway

On a sunny Wednesday evening, I headed into town to the newly refurbished barn at the Crown & Thistle in Abingdon to hear author Nick Harkaway talk about his novels and more. (Beer and books make a nice mixture in the sunshine).

Nick is now the author of three novels and one non-fiction book. His latest, Tigerman, has recently been published and I will tell you up front that it is the best novel I’ve read this year (out of fifty read so far), and I shall be reviewing the book for Shiny New Books, issue 2, out at the beginning of July.

DSCF3460-001

Nick and me!

The evening started off with Nick in conversation with Mark from Mostly Books, and it was obvious to me right from the start that Nick is, as Jenny @ReadingtheEnd put later put it on twitter to me, “Sui generis that man!” – definitely one of a kind; intellectual, erudite and well-read, yet loving trashy movies, completely mad, yet intensely sane, and yes, happy! It was a pleasure to meet him and hear him speak – I am now a huge fan.

Nick and Mark started off by immediately digressing off-topic into the genesis of his book The Blind Giant: How to Survive in the Digital Age. It came out of some blog columns he wrote for The Bookseller on the challenge of e-books and the internet, and he pulled all the ideas together into a discussion about social agency as it relates to technology.

After riffing about the internet to which we returned later, Nick and Mark discussed the genre-busting nature of his three novels. They are all very different in style – The Gone-Away World is a bit SF&F – post-apocalyptic but with ninjas and pirates; Angelmaker has a clockwork repairer, a ninety-year-old former superspy and a doomsday machine; Tigerman is a post-colonial eco-thriller set in a dangerous paradise with superheroes. Harkaway said that “in the UK we are obsessed with taxonomy and putting things into pigeonholes.” He grew up reading wonderful books that defied pigeonholing, and after being a scriptwriter, which is a very enclosed type of writing – you have to have a beginning, a middle and an end – being free to write a novel made him go, “I can do anything!” and so he has done. He hinted that his fourth novel is “completely batshit!” – can’t wait!

There is a development in his writing through the three novels though. The first features two male friends of the same age, the second a Father and grown-up son, and in Tigerman we have a man who wants to become a parent to a lost boy.

tigermanHe told us about the Eureka moment in Thailand when he fired a handgun for the first time (at a target), and he thought about how Batman no longer carries a gun. This gave him the superhero aspect of Tigerman. He and his wife were planning to have children at the time, so parenthood came into the mix too. His wife runs a human rights charity and deals with torture and rendition; he had been thinking about the island of Diego Garcia (see Wikipedia here), a British-owned island in the central Indian Ocean where the US has a base and the CIA were rumoured to have landed rendition flights for refuelling – this gave him the island of Mancreu where the novel is based. Tigerman is his first novel to have a unity of place and time – the island circumscribes the whole thing and the action all takes place over a few weeks.

Nick read us an extract from the novel, a really funny passage which didn’t spoil the plot for those who hadn’t read the book. There is a lot of humour in this novel – and it was one of the passages I’d marked down to quote from later. When I read the novel, I saw echoes of Graham Greene, which I asked about, and Nick said he never thought about but is terribly flattered by the comparison whenever it gets mentioned.  The main character, Lester Ferris, is definitely a Greene type – he’s a British Army sergeant – left behind to represent British interests once the embassy staff have gone – Lester being a soldier is used to obeying orders, and is told not to look too closely at what is going on around the island, but living there does affect him – particularly when he meets and befriends a boy who could be the son he’s never had.

Harkaway also talked more about twitter – he is an enthusiast, but doesn’t let it distract him from writing – noises from his young children are more likely to do that.  He does read digital text, but isn’t “pleased by it.”  You just can’t beat the feel of a book – indeed when he signed my hardbacks of Tigerman and Angelmaker, he stroked the cover and end-papers of Angelmaker saying it was such a lovely design – it is.

If you ever get the chance to hear Nick talk, do go – he is a fascinating speaker and a lovely chap to boot.  Tigerman was a five star read for me – and I’ve got his previous two novels still to read – Yay!

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway – published May 2014 by William Heinemann, hardback, 384 pages.
The Blind Giant: How to Survive in the Digital Age by Nick Harkaway, paperback.

My last inbetweeny review from Shiny New Books

There’s still one of my reviews from what we editors have called the ‘Inbetweeny’ issue of Shiny New Books that I haven’t highlighted here on my own blog.

Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff

picture me gone

Picture Me Gone is a complex and intelligent exploration of parenthood and the effects that events can have upon relationships, seen through the eyes of twelve-year-old Mila who goes on a road trip with her father to find his missing best friend.

Being an American who has lived in London for twenty years or so, Meg Rosoff is more able than most to do justice to both sides of the pond.  She has now written seven YA novels, and they’re all different and each rather wonderful in their own way – I’d urge you to give one a try. Picture Me Gone could be a good starting point.

See the full review here.

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff, 2013, Penguin paperback, 208 pages.

Not reading about The Beautiful Game!

Brazil 2014 – The World Cup starts today!

CPFCOh woe, woe and thrice woe on the telly front for the next month! I come from a family of fanatic Crystal Palace FC supporters who will all be glued to their TVs watching the World Cup. Admittedly, if England were to get into the knock-out stages, even I would probably watch bits of it – but only England, and only the later matches.

Similarly, I have no desire to read any novel where football – that is soccer, rather than an other national variant, is the main subject. Surprisingly, football novels of any note are not very thick on the ground so this list of books I’m not going to read isn’t very long. (Please note the titles do go through to my Amazon affiliate link just in case you are interested – I’ll earn pennies!). I will not be reading:

Red-or-DeadThe Damned Utd nor Red or Dead by David Peace.

The Damned Utd about Brian Clough’s 44 days as manager of Leeds Utd is legendary. I should add that I have seen (and enjoyed) the film (DVD, 2009), but that was about Michael Sheen’s amazing performance more than anything else.

Red or Dead is a novelisation of Liverpool FC’s long association with manager Bill Shankly, who famously said:

Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.


puffin footballGoalkeepers are Different
 nor The Rise of Gerry Logan by Brian Glanville.

Glanville is perhaps the UK’s greatest writer about football including these novels.  I was amazed to find that the Gerry Logan book from 1965 is republished by Faber Finds and Franz Beckenbauer has declared it to be ‘the best book on football ever written’!  Apparently the character of Logan is based broadly on Danny Blanchflower.

Goalkeepers are different is a children’s novel, and I expect my brother probably read it as a child, along with Glanville’s The Puffin Book of Football, which I remember seeing on his shelves.

The Arsenal Stadium Mysteryarsenal by Leonard R Gribble

This crime novel from the 1930s was adapted into a film (1939, DVD). It was perhaps the first feature football film and many Arsenal players from the 1938-9 season were included in the cast.  During a charity match between Arsenal and amateur side the Trojans, the Trojans’ key striker mysteriously collapses in full view of the capacity crowd – it transpires he was poisoned.  The film in particular appears to have been much loved.

venables 2venables 1They Used to Play on Grass by Terry Venables and Gordon Williams – or is it Gordon Williams and Terry Venables as on the original (right). They’ve switched the author’s order on later editions… I wonder why?!

Venables and Richards were also responsible for the crime detective Hazell – penning a trio of novels which were developed into a TV series in the 1970s starring Nicholas Ball – does anyone remember that?

footballfactoryThe Football Factory by John King.

This debut novel about a disaffected Chelsea fan who becomes a hooligan may be ground-breaking in a way, but when you look it up on Amazon, you’ll also find lots of memoirs by real-life yobs about their hooliganism inspired by it – not novels and not good.

fever-pitch* * * * *

My last inclusion on this short survey of football novels is not a novel, it’s a memoir and I couldn’t miss it out. If I ever do read a soccer book – this will be the one – and primarily for Nick Hornby’s writing.

The book is, of course, Fever Pitch  by Nick Hornby, and if I did read it, I would be sure to get it’s latest livery incarnated in the Penguin Modern Classics catalogue.

And so in the immortal words of Kenneth Wolstenholme as Geoff Hurst scored England’s fourth goal in the 1966 World Cup final:

They think it’s all over, … it is now!

 

Guest Post from Mintcustard

Today, I’m delighted to turn my blog over to my sister-in-law. I shall hand you over forthwith and she’ll tell you more …

* * * * *

As a regular reader of Annabel’s blog I was delighted that she asked me to write a guest blog post. Kindly she left the choice of topic and format entirely up to me. That may of course change in the edit but I’m not precious about that.

Why would I be asked, you might be thinking? Who on Earth is Becky Thorn? Quite right too!

Well, I have to set the record straight and say I’m married to Annabel’s brother. I hope, however, I was also asked as I’m a fellow blogger. I blog at Mintcustard, mostly about food and occasionally about drinks too. In my real life I’m a primary school teacher who happens to have written three cookery books.

Annabel mentioned that I might like to reflect on the books that have influenced me over the years. I could easily have chosen the Ladybird Key Words reading books. Just the right size for chubby hands, my Mum taught me to read using them before I went to school. She released me into a world of my own imagination long before my peers, and for that I am eternally grateful.

I can see in the children I teach how hard some have to work to become fluent readers. A favourite author of mine, Allan Ahlberg, put it beautifully in his poem:

Slow Reader from Please Mrs. Butler, Allan Ahlberg (Penguin, 1983)

I – am – in – the – slow – read – ers’ – group –
my – broth – er – is – in – the – foot – ball – team –
my – sis – ter – is – a – ser – ver –
my – lit – tle – broth – er – was – a – wise – man –
in – the – in -fants’ – Christ – mas – play –
I – am – in – the – slow – read – ers’ – group –
that – is – all – I – am – in –
I – hate – it.”

So “Please Mrs Butler”, might have been a contender

Whilst visiting friends in Ely during a particularly damp half term I can vividly recall devouring a copy of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate factory. I must have been about seven years old and it was the first book I read cover to cover in one sitting. I must have reluctantly had lunch but that was it. Charlie opened the door to a world of longer books, both by Dahl and others. Tom’s Midnight Garden, Children of the Oregon Trail and The incredible adventures of Professor Brainstawm.

I was having a real problem. Which genre to choose, let alone which book within that genre. I decided to do what I do best, pop into the kitchen and have a look at my favourite cook books. It was then that I spotted it. The book that has probably influenced me most. I’m sure by now you have guessed it must be a cook book. Have I chosen Nigella? Does Jamie float my boat? Would Heston ignite my passions?

fun to cookNo, sorry, none of them. I have chosen a book that belonged to me when I was eight and I still have now.

My Fun-to-Cook Book, written by Ursula Sedgwick and illustrated by Martin Mayhew. This book didn’t pander to the young cook who read it. Oh, no. We were encouraged to bake sausage popovers, fry Poor Knights of Windsor and boil sugar to make honeycomb. I did it all. The honeycomb was a little over caramelised but huge fun. The wonderful comic strip style illustrations, with asides from the cat and dog, led us through the recipe step by step. This book helped me to be independent in the kitchen, to take risks and to show off my skills to the rest of the family.

topsyMy signature dish from the book was Topsy turvy cakes. I was a baker even then it seems. If you want to see how they turn out when I make them today then please pop over to Mintcustard where I’ll be blogging my attempts to turn back time.

Thank you to Annabel for asking me to share my thoughts with you. I have had a blast! I’d love to know what your favourite cook books are. Did you have favourites that have stayed with you?

* * * * *

Thank you so much for being my guest today Becky.  Now, if you’d like to find out how her Topsy-Turvy Cakes turned out, head over here.

* * * * *

P1010963 (2)

Ginny reads about Chicken Pie in Beckys book School Dinners

As Becky is too polite to plug her own books, I’ll do it for her. To explore Becky’s cookbooks on Amazon UK, please click below:
– Good Old Fashioned School Dinners: The Good, the Bad and the Spotted Dick
– The No-Waste Meal Planner: Create Your Own Meal Chain That Won’t Waste an Ingredient
– Movie Dinners

Hitch’s last essays …

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Hitch-MortalityI’m a long-term fan of Vanity Fair magazine for it’s in depth articles, photo portfolios and reportage, (OK, I don’t read the bits about obscure US politicians). One of the highlights most months though was to read the latest essay by British writer Christopher Hitchens.

A sublime essayist and journalist, a forthright and vocal atheist always happy to debate on difficult subjects – his pieces were always worth reading, whether you agreed with him or not.  I say were – because he died in 2011 from oesophageal cancer, more than likely brought on by his heavy drinking and smoking.  He collapsed in 2010 on the book tour to publicise his memoir Hitch 22, and was found to have cancer which had metastised, spread and thus was terminal. As he said: ‘…the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five.’

His last book, published posthumously, Mortality, is a collection of the essays he wrote during that last year for Vanity Fair around the subject of his cancer and dying. It is prefaced by his friend and editor of VF Graydon Carter with an afterword by his widow Carol Blue. I remember devouring them each month, and it is entirely fitting that they be collected into this short book.

Of course, memoirs about dying and cancer have been done before. Notably, I still can’t forget John Diamond’s page-long columns in the back of the Saturday Times magazine in which he wrote of his life once diagnosed with throat cancer. These columns became the basis of his memoir C: Because cowards get cancer too. He died in 2001: Diamond’s wife was Nigella Lawson, and I really felt for her, having already lost her mother and one sister to cancer. In fact, in Hitch’s unfinished notes in the final chapter he mentions Diamond:

Like many other readers, I used to quietly urge him on from week to week. But after a year and more … well, a certain narrative expectation inevitably built up. Hey, miracle cure!  Hey I was just having you on! No, neither of those could work as endings. Diamond had to die; and he duly, correctly (in narrative terms) did. Though – how can I put this? A stern literary critic might complain that his story lacked compactness toward the end…

But back to Hitch himself. Having the benefit of being able to write full essays for VF, he is able to expound at length, essentially taking a different related topic each time as well as updating us on the progress of his illness and treatment.

Perhaps the most fascinating essay is the second in which he deals with religion, and how he had both people praying for him and condemning him to hell!  For an atheist polemicist, he has many friends among the world’s many religions, and is more likeable than Dawkins for it. However, some would still hope to persuade him to have a deathbed conversion …

I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.

A different secular problem also occurs to me: What if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating.

In another chapter, he writes about his voice – his vocal cords going decidedly croaky – and as a man who earns his living by voice as well as pen, he hated the idea of having to communicate by writing, even if his writing is his voice on paper.  He thanks (also now the late) Simon Hoggart who …

…about thirty-five years ago informed me that an article of mine was well argued but dull, and advised me briskly to write ‘more like the way you talk.’ At the time, I was near speechless at the charge of being boring and never thanked him properly, but in time I appreciated that my fear of self-indulgence and the personal pronoun was its own form of indulgence.

Another interesting essay is based upon Nietzsche’s pronouncement: Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich starker – Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. Hitchens discusses why it doesn’t really work, although you may think it does until you get terminal and he illustrates the essay with quotations from Kingsley Amis, Betjeman and Bob Dylan.

These essays and additional material were a joy to revisit. Well-argued, supported by apposite quotes, each encapsulates its subject brilliantly. His interest in  the human condition too shines through the writing – it always has done. You could argue that this is not his best work, but perhaps it is is his most meaningful. Hitchens for all his bravado comes across as so full of life, even as the end approached and he shows great courage. His voice – spoken and on the page is a great loss, but luckily, he wrote lots of books, including his memoir Hitch 22, his anti-theist treatise God is not great: how religion poisons everything, and a great collection of other essays from 2011, Arguably. Now I don’t have him to read in VF any more, I shall start on these. (9/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. Atlantic, 2012 paperback 128 pages.
Hitch 22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens. Atlantic, 2010 paperback 448 pages.